Last night, as I lay in bed and waited for sleep, like a good little insomniac, I thought about the dialectic of freedom. It didn’t put me to sleep. So, here I am, the next day, putting words to my sleep deprived thoughts.
In the Anglosphere, the problem of liberty has been narrowly framed by a tradition reaching from Benjamin Constant to Isaiah Berlin, in which the supreme contrast is between negative liberty and positive liberty. In Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin speaks of negative liberty in terms of compulsion:
“I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no human being interferes
with my activity. Political liberty in this sense is simply the area within which a
man can act unobstructed by others. If I am prevented by other persons from
doing what I could otherwise do,I am to that degree unfree; and if this area is
contracted by other men beyond a certain minimum, I can be described as
being coerced, or, it may be, enslaved.”
Positive liberty, for Berlin, is the liberty implied by “being one’s own master.” It is, in other words, autonomy, and not simply being buffered from various coercive acts.
However, in philosophy, as in Looney Tunes, there is more than one way to skin a cat. And, in philosophy as in Looney Tunes, in the end the skinned cat will slink back with a whole new skin. It is the nature of the beast. Novalis said that God is a problem whose solution is another problem, which is a high falutin way of saying the same thing.
So instead of beginning with freedom as being, firstly, a matter of the human, let’s begin with the ancient notion of freedom, which from the Daoists to the Stoics consists of being free from property. The sage and the fool are the paragon figures of freedom – one, by an act of generosity, liberates himself by the simple but massive act of giving away his chains – and the other has no chains to impede him anyway, but exists as a conduit for God’s occasional flashes of lightning.
This idea of freedom derives its coloring from a world view that projects a society of slave or serfholders on the cosmic order. The generous act – the act of giving away – is a form of power, and it has a certain sacred backlighting.
Among the early moderns, those stalwart visionaries of a capitalism to be, the coordinates of freedom are reversed. It is here that Berlin’s two freedoms have there focus. The propertarian notion of liberty is that, precisely, the preservation of one’s property against encroachment is the essence of freedom. The libertarian tendency in the U.S. is just the psychopathological outgrowth of this revolution in values. For the ancients, of course, this would have been absurd – it is as if the slave imagined he were free by carefully protecting his chains against all comers.
The third idea of freedom I’d call the existential one – with a strong mixture of Marxism. It echoes the ancient wisdom, while absorbing the historical lesson of modernity. For the existentialist, like the Marxist, makes property subordinate to life – and in particular, to time. Marx’s approach to the labor embodied in properties – which sees the measure and dynamic of that labor in time – is a key insight here. Freedom can’t be divorced from the time one spends laboring. For the Marxist, and the existentialist, capitalism has, in essence, abolished the old aristocratic categories of the serf, the slave and the poor. The poor no longer exist as a social residue and charity case, but as an exploitable mass from which class power is extracted. In the Marxist vision, all labor exists to be routinized, mechanized, and made more efficient for capital. On the other side of the divide, however, stand the capitalist who are also pursuing routines. For a time, those routines are valorized to a hypertrophic extent: while the cashier is replaced by the automatic checkout machine, the CEO is attributed a mystical power of governance and leadership, instead of considered in terms of the regression to the mean that governs his sector. The latter then is paid enormously, while the former is paid less and less. The former’s time is, in other words, devalued.
Eventually, Marx expected all professions to become proletarianized. This hasn’t happened yet, as we have an elaborate and not well understood guild system that keeps the doctor and the dentist from falling victim to the mechanization instinct of capitalism. One can easily imagine that eventually, the artificial economic paradise carved out by these guilds will fall, too. At some point, pure capital, pure property, will reign supreme over a propertyless mass, which has paid with its time for its surroundings, but does not, when push comes to shove, own anything – rather, every thing, underneath a veil of middle class security, is actually rented.
Freedom, from the existentialist point of view, is the project of actually releasing human time from the system of property relations in which it is held captive. The existential version of freedom, then, is both utopian and highly dependent on the movement of the social towards the final crisis of the capitalist system.
Now, given these three ways of thinking about liberty, we can understand why the libertarian is such a fascinating figure for the liberal. It is as if they form a couple, with the libertarian being the trickster and the liberal being the straight man. Together, they represent the fool position. Meanwhile, we wait, we wait patiently, for the arrival of the sage.